Nervous Conditions tells the story of Tambudzayi Sigauke's struggle to acquire an education. The title of the novel identifies as its provenance Jean Paule Sartre's comment in his preface to Frantz Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth (1963) that "The status of "native" is a nervous condition introduced and maintained by the settler among the colonized people with their consent" (Fanon, 1963, p17). Whereas Fanon's book concentrated on the states of alienation and deprivations experienced by the African people under a brutal colonial regime, Dangarembgwa incorporates the sense that the margin which is the lot of Africans under the colonial system is also a physical, intellectual and psychological space with its own dynamics tensions and contradictions. In this squeezed space, black women live a life of sexual discrimination from their men and as a result black women find themselves collaborating with black men against colonialism even as the women fight their own men. And of course, the state of "Nervous Conditions" will also denote the powerful and circumscribing gaze of the reader/critic usually male, which often compels the African women writers" to negotiate the creation of their fictional characters.
Five black women in Nervous Conditions help Tambudzayi to escape from the "burden of womanhood" (p 16) imposed by the interface between colonialism and the traditional Shona patriarchy. In the novel, it is the grandmother who passes on to Tambudzayi the historical awareness of the colonial assault on the African communal mode of production.In actual fact, Tambudzayi learns that the African people were deprived of their fertile lands by the white settlers after a bloody war of 1896. With this loss of political independence, also went the African men's ability to provide for their families.The immediate alternative was to seek work in the sprouting European farms and mines, a development which left African women in control of rural cultivation, the raising of school-fees for the their families and the general upkeep of the homestead. For the heroine, the "history lessons" (p 17), which she goes through with the grandmother provide an alternative source of knowledge which, as Tambudzayi herself acknowledges, could not be found in the colonial schools textsbooks. It turns out that for Tambudzayi, the tutorials on the history of the dispossessed black people is the first stage in the process of understanding the social forces that cause the "entrapment" (p1) of the female-kind. The power of the grandmother to remember is a crucial reference point for Tambudzayi to tap from, in her journey towards creating a new sense of the self she announces at the end of the novel.
The theme of "remembering" is central to Tambudzayi's growth into a young woman who can reconstruct her history, and in the process re-inscribe herself as a speaking subject. In a wide ranging interview with Jane Wilkinson, Tsitsi Dangarembgwa emphasised history, myth and story-telling as the means for Tambudzayi as a woman to reclaim her identity:
Perhaps Tambudzayi, given the kind of her background that she had, was more at home with what could be termed myth or romance or fairy tales with all the stories that her grandmother told her about her actual family and her like myth (Dangarembga in J.Wilkinson, 1992, p. 191).
But Tambudzayi has more than the collective memory bank from which to derive the validation of her quest for self-improvement.She gets financial help from Babamukuru who is Tambudzayi's father's brother. As the erstwhile head of the Sigauke family, Babamukuru is the centre from which meanings concerned with the direction of the family development must originate and radiate around. For example, his social gesture of sending Jeremiah's (Tambudzayi's father's) children to school, stems from and is validated by the African social institution of the extended family.
Tambudzai sees Babamukuru's gesture as "oceanic" (p4). In other words the survival and continuity of this institution which emphasizes a collective approach to solving social problems among Africans amidst the assaults from colonial forces measuring individual success in terms of incorporation into the dominant colonial culture, not only underlines its resilience but that the extended family ties provide the bedrock for an alliance of African people in the creation of a nationalist front in the 1960's in the country. What becomes obvious is that inspite of his education or because of it, Babamukuru is still guided by African traditional modes of behaviour. This way, he links with the popular aspirations of his race.
The potential for a nationalist narrative is deeply embodied in Tambudzayi's mother's understanding of the position of the Africans under colonialism. She endorses the truism that the "poverty of blackness" (p 16) has reconstituted the identity of African women in ways that have rendered her vulnerable to the forces of history; "This business of womanhood, " she says, "is a heavy burden...And these days it is worse, with the poverty of blackness on one side and the weight of womanhood on the other, Aiwa!" (p 16).In this self-conscious act of linking race and gender as interlocking systems of the exploitation of women, Tambudzayi's mother is moving towards the reading of the African society along lines suggested by nationalism. It is a point of view that privileges the polar opposites of the colonized set against the colonizer, black men versus black women, all levels of "nervous conditions" very much alive in the novel. But Tambudzayi's mother is a janus-faced figure who, while desiring freedom from colonial relations will on the other hand, advise her daughter to be content with an inferior status to that of African men and "carry (her) burdens with strength" (p 16). The self-denying tendencies implicit in the mother-role played out by Tambudzayi's mother reveals how female characters are made to feel incomplete without children or men as husbands.
In other words, the traditional image of women as mothers invite suggestions of origins - birth, hearth, home, roots and umbilical cord - and rests upon the frequent, and some might say, "natural, " identification of the mother with the beloved earth, the national territory and even the first spoken language, the mother tongue. As Elleke Boehmer (1992) points out in an essay on "Mother- lands, Mothers and Nationalist Sons; Representation of Women in African Literature" (1992, pp. 229-247), symbolically women are ranged above men while in reality they are kept below them. A case in point in Zimbabwe is Yvonne Vera's novel, Nehanda (1993). In it, Nehanda is portrayed as a mythical mother figure who presides over the vast land. The well-known role of Nehanda as the central force which directed the first Chimurenga (war) in the 1890s" against the colonial settlers is underplayed. In the novel, Nehanda can only achieve spiritual greatness when she is possessed by a male ancestral spirit! It is important to recall that in the nationalist iconographies the images of mothers and men occupy different spaces. Where women's assigned roles appear in the form of inviolable ideals, emblematic and therefore sacrosanct -- if they do not feature as a subversive quantity and threat - male roles in nationalism may be characterised as metonymic: as author and subject of nationalism, the male is part of the nation, or contiguos with it; his place is alongside his brother citizens.